SALT LAKE CITY — The nation's largest operator of medical waste burn plants is denying it violated its state and federal permit by releasing too many hazardous pollutants from its North Salt Lake facility.
Stericycle, which drew a protest over the weekend featuring environmental activist Erin Brockovich, is denying allegations detailed in a May notice of violation issued by Utah air quality regulators.
A leading clean air advocate said the move by Stericycle is predictable.
"Stericycle is making a lot of money off that incinerator," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "I'm not surprised that they appear to be willing to fight state regulators tooth and nail. But they should also understand that the residents of North Salt Lake will not back down either."
The denial sets in motion what could prove to be a protracted legal dispute between the Utah Division of Air Quality and the company, which will now air its case before an administrative law judge. Either the state or the company could then appeal those findings to the district court.
Utah Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird has said the violation levied by the state was "significant" and would be accompanied by a substantial fine that could potentially be offset by new technology installed at the plant to better reduce emissions.
Disagreement over the provisions of that settlement agreement — which had a deadline extended three times by state regulators — prompts this next phase in the regulatory process.
Stericycle operates the only medical waste incinerator in the West, with clients that include hospitals, mortuaries, veterinary clinics, ambulance companies, dialysis centers and tatoo parlors.
Results from a Dec. 27-28, 2011, smokestack test at its plant revealed excess levels of nitrous oxide in violation of its permit, according to the division.
Bird said the company has demonstrated a pattern of irregularities with its operation over a period of several years. The repeated problems with other tests and discrepancies that popped up in the company's logs showed that regulators were misled and information was manipulated that was not reflective of normal operating conditions, according to the division.
That component of the case — doctoring pollution records — has been turned over the Environmental Protection Agency for a criminal investigation.
In August, the state essentially stepped up its case against Stericycle, revamping its violation to more accurately, and seriously, reflect the number of days the company was in violation of its permit.
Air quality advocates and concerned residents have repeatedly pressed state and city officials to shut down the plant.
Built west of railroad tracks amid fields and a once-industrialized area, the community now sports rows of homes and an elementary school in the Foxboro development.
At a town hall meeting Saturday, angry residents told North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave that the company's business license to operate should be yanked. The company also has a conditional-use permit, which subject to review by the city.
Arave said the city has to proceed carefully. Because of legal implications, he declined to say what was on the table as far as Stericycle is concerned.
The mayor did tell residents that company representatives and the city have been in discussions over a possible relocation of the business.